The current huge pressures on the NHS take us back not only to the Beveridge Report, but also to William Brown and the Outlaws who wrote their own Outlaws Report. A few of their wishes, for all the wrong reasons, have unfortunately come true:
1. As much hollidays as term.
2. No afternoon school.
3. Six pence a week pocket munny and not to be took off.
4. No Latin. No French. No Arithmetick.
5. As much ice creem and banarnas and creem buns as we like free.
6. No punnishments and stay up as late as we like.
“The Outlaws Report” in William and the Brains Trust (1945)
Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.
Richmal Crompton creates a comic heroine in Felicity Stands By (1928), a collection of stories based on the antics of sixteen-year-old Felicity. She lives at the Hall with her sister Rosemary, her grandfather Sir Digby Harborough, his secretary Franklin, who is in love with Rosemary, Moult the butler, with occasional visits from her brother Ronald and her aunt Lady Montague – there always has to be an aunt. The book is held together by a loose plot that revolves around Franklin and Rosemary’s relationship and the years between Felicity leaving school and the dramatic moment when her plaits are snipped off and she, apparently, grows up.
Felicity’s “familiar demon of mischief” inspires all sorts of misadventures based on meddling, misunderstandings and mistaken identity.
In “Felicity Comes to Town”, Felicity has stolen some letters mistakenly believing that her sister, Rosemary, wants them back. However, Felicity realises that
she was making a distinct mess of the affair. Look at it in any way she would, she had to admit that she was making a distinct mess of it. She had taken the papers without making sure that they were Rosemary’s and—and they’d turned out not to be. They might have been, of course, but the fact remained that they weren’t. Then she had gone upstairs to put the letters back and left them behind on Marcia’s writing-table. Then she’d locked [someone] in the cupboard. She didn’t know how she was going to explain that …. In fact, she didn’t know how she was going to explain anything to anyone, and she saw the moment when explanations would be demanded not far ahead.
For Felicity, “Real life is very disappointing.” William would no doubt sympathise with her plight.
We do not know what William Brown would have made of Brexit. The Just William stories, however, did cover many key political moments in the early to mid-twentieth century. Contemporary commentators find that the stories still have relevance today.
William Beveridge published his report in 1942 and recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’. Professor Eugene Milne, an Editor of the Journal of Public Health, reflects on how William Brown and the Outlaws respond in 1944 to the Beveridge Report, on which the foundations of our National Health Service were built:
“Richmal Crompton’s short story, ‘The Outlaws’ Report’, first published in 1944, revolves around our hero, William Brown, and his gang—Ginger, Henry and Douglas (I don’t recall whether Jumble the dog was present)—penning a response to the report’s publication and smuggling it into the briefcase of a War Office official….
William and his Outlaw friends’ amendments to Beveridge; their additional ‘Giants’ were: 1. As much holidays as term. 2. No afternoon school. 3. Sixpence a week pocket munny and not to be took off. 4. No Latin no French no Arithmetick. 5. As much ice cream and bananas and cream buns as we like free. 6. No punishments and stay up as late as we like.
It is a sign of diminished political times and dialogue that this is now, essentially, our national policy on Brexit.”
It was good to see journalist David Aaronovitch singing Richmal Crompton’s praises in The Times on 13th February.
Aaronovitch argues that Richmal Crompton “created one of the great characters of English literature. And that the way she did it means she stands comparison with Wodehouse and Waugh…. William is almost always on the side of the tramp, the underdog and the rebel in the face of wealth and authority. And though her hero professes to disdain girls, Crompton’s females are invariably reluctant to accept the demure straightjacket society seeks to impose on them” (The Times 13th February 2019). This is, as he suggests, true of Violet Elizabeth, who is a natural rebel and fighter: “I can” is one of her mantras. It is also true of many of the women characters in her novels. Others, however, like William’s sister Ethel, are representative of convention and restraint, but then like her father and brother she just thinks that William is mad. They utterly fail to understand him, whilst we as Crompton’s readers do.
I went to a recording of two Just William stories being performed by Martin Jarvis last week. He is quite right, Richmal Crompton was the J.K. Rowling of her day. I plan to write about this over the coming months.
The recording was held in the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond upon Thames. I was struck by how many men were there. I have met several of her male fans recently who still think she was a man. Is the success of Martin Jarvis’s reading just nostalgia for days gone by and their early childhood reading? I don’t think so. William speaks to both boy and man and Martin Jarvis’s performance brings this aspect of her writing to life.
Jarvis gives us a thoughtful, strategic William. I overheard a member of the audience put it perfectly. Richmal Crompton does not talk down to children, he commented, which was why he liked her Just William stories so much as a child. Martin Jarvis captures this quality in Crompton’s writing. He gives us a William who can sound ageless.
At times, William portrays qualities that could be true for both children and adults. In one of the stories Jarvis performed, “William and the Musician”, we are entranced by William’s imagination that creates exciting adventures and takes him off into another world. At the same time, this quality is one that perhaps, like him, we have all learnt to rein in:
“William had learnt that in dealing with ordinary limited human beings one’s imagination should not be given too free a rein. He put the true artistic touch of restraint into his picture.”
The care Martin Jarvis takes with each word and phrase, the detailed attention to the tone of even the snappiest retort, makes me realise how nuanced these stories are. He performs a William who “gave himself up again to gloomy reverie” and is worried that his new found friend will be “ignominiously ejected” from a local event. His attention to Crompton’s language and his precision timing to heighten the comedy are absolutely critical to our enjoyment.
Martin Jarvis’s performance also reminded me that it is often other adult characters in Crompton’s stories who we laugh at, while we laugh with William.
Martin Jarvis’s performance of two stories in Just William Live can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on:
William and the Musician: Wednesday 1st May 2019 11:30AM.
William and the School Report: Wednesday 8th May 2019 11:30AM.
Today seems a good day to revive my blog about the work of the author, Richmal Crompton. Many of her readers may not realise that her real name was Richmal Lamburn. Crompton was her mother’s maiden name. The life of the woman is somewhat hidden behind her work as an author and her most famous character, William Brown. Richmal Lamburn died 50 years ago today. 2019 is also the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first Just William story. I am thinking of both Richmal and William Brown today.
In one of his more sanguine moments, in “The Helper”:
“[William] had come to the conclusion that morning that there was certain monotonous sameness about life. One got up, and had one’s breakfast, and went to school, and had one’s dinner, and went to school, and had one’s tea, and played, and had one’s supper, and went to bed.”
One of the things I love about working in Richmal Crompton’s archive at the University of Roehampton is when I can piece together different fragments of paper and narrative that tell us something about her writing life. Here is an example of what I mean.
Here is part of the draft manuscript for a story called “William and the New Civilisation”:
In the middle section of the page it reads as follows:
They walked on for a few yards then stopped again to listen. The words “William Brown” rose clearly above the tumult.
“There,” said William. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.
“An’ it wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.
“Course it wasn’t,” said William. He was silent for a few moments then continued, “But let’s try ‘n’ look as if it wasn’t. That sometimes helps. To start with anyway.”
Crompton used scraps of paper to make all sorts of notes about her writing like this royalty statement:
On the back she made the following amendment:
The tumult was dying down again, replaced with a babel of children’s voices. Above the babel the words “William Brown” could be clearly distinguished.
“There,” said William with a certain gloomy satisfaction. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.
“It wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.
“Course it wasn’t,” said William, “we did nothin’”
“Nothin,” said Ginger.
“Nothin,” said Henry
“Nothin,” said Douglas
“Well let’s try ‘n’ look as if we’d done nothing,” said W”
Needless to say this was a memorable moment in my research. I also checked the final version of this story and it is indeed this amendment that was published.